The Bob Brannum Interview
Michael D. McClellan
Wednesday, April 7th, 2004
He played basketball in an era when fists flew almost as freely as the two-handed set shots that defined a generation. Think John Wayne on hardwood, and you begin to get a feel for the essence of Bob Brannum. A man’s man, Brannum was a blue collar warrior who approached the game with reckless abandon, diving for loose balls and detesting the effort of those who did not follow his example. Equally adept and taking a charge or delivering a hard foul, the gritty Brannum simply let his game do the talking. And while his contributions to the team often flew below the public’s radar, they were never lost on those fortunate enough to play alongside him.
Plucked from the farmlands of his native Kansas, Brannum traveled east to play collegiate basketball for the legendary Adolph Rupp. How many hoopsters can say that they’ve been coached by the two biggest names in the business? Brannum can. He can tell you stories about Rupp, an ornery cuss if ever there was one, and then, without missing a beat, recount what it was like to play professionally for a burgeoning genius in Red Auerbach. He can also tell you about a collegiate career interrupted by military duty, a subsequent transfer to Michigan State, and about barnstorming exhibitions played in high school gymnasiums all over New England. Imagine Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls coming to your hometown to play the Los Angeles Lakers. Then imagine them doing it again the next night, in the next small town just down the highway. Unfathomable today, but Brannum can tell you what it was like to be basketball’s ambassador at such a grassroots level. Want to talk NBA games played at the stroke of midnight? Bob Brannum knows a little something about that, too.
Fierce, loyal, competitive; Brannum was the quintessential teammate, a rugged, raw-boned player willing to do the dirty work so vital to winning basketball games. He was aggressive on the court – the great Bob Cousy flourished in large part because of Brannum’s relentless, hard-hitting style – and his reputation as both protector and enforcer was league-renowned. Brannum, in fact, was all of these things and more – the youngest collegiate All-American in NCAA history, bodyguard to the game’s incomparable pass-master, and later, the longtime coach of golf and basketball at Brandeis University.
Brannum’s odyssey from Depression Era youth to NBA pioneer began in Winfield, Kansas. He graduated from high school at sixteen, a year too soon for military action, thus postponing an inevitable date with World War II. Rupp, in Kansas on business, came away from his visit intrigued with Brannum’s basketball skills – so much so that he invited the tough-as-nails post player to Lexington for an official tryout. A scholarship to play for the mighty Wildcats followed. Brannum was quick to validate Rupp’s belief in him, concluding a sensational freshman season by being named a consensus All-American. Kentucky’s Baron had struck oil yet again.
The military came calling after his sophomore season, yet this didn’t stop Brannum from honing his basketball skills. He played in a league on his base, battling with fellow Kentucky star Alex Groza, unaware that the two players would later be pitted against each other in an historic confrontation on Michigan State’s campus. The more they played, the more they learned about each other – and about themselves. Groza, later indicted in a point shaving scandal that rocked the sports world, was the more natural pivot. Brannum was more comfortable at forward.
Brannum returned to Kentucky following his discharge only to find that the basketball landscape had shifted dramatically during his absence. While Rupp was as ornery as ever, the University of Kentucky basketball program was suddenly overrun with talent. So stocked was the Wildcat roster that two All-Americans, Brannum and Jim Jordan, had to earn their way back onto the team. This didn’t sit well with Brannum, who later transferred north, to Michigan State University, where he led the Spartans against his ex-mates in a game for the ages. Playing before a packed crowd at Jenison Fieldhouse, Brannum thoroughly outplayed Groza and the rest of Kentucky’s Fabulous Five. Scoring more than half his team’s points, Brannum and the underdog Spartans fell just short of a major upset, losing 47-45. Brannum finished with 23 points, while only one other Spartan cracked double-figures. No other MSU player had more than five. Said Rupp afterwards: Michigan State has a fine team, and they were keyed up for us tonight. This huge crowd tonight showed how badly they wanted to beat us. Rupp’s failure to credit Brannum directly was, in the Baron’s own perverse way, praise at the highest level.
The Sheboygan Redskins of the National Basketball League came next, followed by a brief stop with the Fort Wayne Pistons. From there Brannum was traded – along with future hall-of-famer Bill Sharman – to the Boston Celtics. Auerbach liked Brannum’s toughness, something he thought the team sorely lacked. Cousy benefited almost immediately. With brawls breaking out in nearly every game during this era, Brannum’s presence made the opposition thing long and hard about roughing up the game’s greatest showman. As an added bonus, the Celtics were suddenly a perennial playoff team.
Celtic Nation had the good fortune to speak with Mr. Brannum about his storied basketball career. The NBA as we know it today was built upon hardnosed players such as the gritty All-American from Winfield, Kansas. We owe them all a debt of gratitude, and our utmost respect.